You have something to offer them besides “That’s racist.” Whether it’s through a guest speaker, a project, a debate led by the teens themselves or just informal conversation, here are the things you should encourage them to think about before they deliver racial laugh lines.
1. Perception matters as much as intention.
Remember Richie Incognito, the Miami Dolphins offensive lineman who called his teammate a “half-nigger,” among other things? Perhaps “It sounds [like] a lot of things it’s not” made sense to him, but it would have saved a lot of trauma to his teammate and national scrutiny if he’d mulled that over before saying it and invoking the “misunderstood friendship” defense.
It wouldn’t hurt, either, to remind the teens of the failed “but I was just kidding” narrative of all the people who’ve lost jobs over racist jokes—often on private Facebook pages. Encourage them to consider, out of a sense of compassion as well as self-protection, not just whether a joke is funny to them but also how its recipient and observers might receive it.
2. Environment can provide a dangerous sense of comfort.
Incognito eventually said that he regretted using racial epithets but insisted that his language was a “product of the environment” in the team’s locker room. Your teens should develop an awareness that what works with a current group might not work somewhere else—or even for others who enter their seemingly safe-for-jokes comfort zone. They should know that offensiveness happens person by person, not based on what you’re used to doing in a particular place or with particular friends.
3. Jokes about racism can be misunderstood as racist jokes.
It’s fair to say that in many of the instances of “self-directed racism” you’ve described, the joke is actually on a stereotype that happens to have to do with race: On the silly assumption that any particular black person loves fried chicken more than any individual of another race. On the unreasonable links between complexion and beauty that anyone can see aren’t based in reality. This type of humor, I think, is healthy and—as you suggested—not a bad way for teens to process their environment.
But the difference can be hard for many people to see. So even if Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t actually mocking Mitt Romney’s black grandson but, rather, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy,” good luck explaining that to people who were already outraged beyond the point of being able to engage in analysis of the actual statement.
4. People who look like you might not identify the way you do. And they might not agree about what’s funny.